So what is free speech, really? Is it the right to burn the American flag? The right to sponsor a campaign to “Draw the Prophet Muhammad,” which offends a sizeable faction of the American population? The right to say what you want, when you want? The right to wear a black armband on your arm in protest of war? The right to use speech that others may deem hateful? The right to protest? The right to insult? The right to praise?
What is free speech, if it isn’t one of the most fundamental rights guaranteed to Americans by the constitution of the United States?
For the Irvine 11, the freedom of speech amounted to precious little, as 10 students at the University of California Irvine campus were found guilty today of two misdemeanors to conspire and disrupt a February 2010 speech by the Israeli ambassador to the United States at the UC Irvine campus. The trial focused on varying views on freedom of speech and censorship, and has drawn the attention of American Muslims across the country.
In a Los Angeles Times article, Lina Akari, whose son Khahid Bahgat Akari was found guilty, said she had trusted the United States court system and trusted the freedom of speech. “I taught him that you can express your mind. I don’t understand what happened. I said here you can have freedom of speech. And look what happened.”
The case of the Irvine 11 is frustrating to many American Muslims who feel just what Lina Akari said – that in a country where you should be able to express your mind, students were punished for doing just that. In a February 17, 2010 speech that President Barack Obama gave to a New Hampshire crowd regarding abortion, protestors interrupted him with shouting. The president said, “Let me just say this though. Some people got organized to do that. That’s part of the American tradition we are proud of. And that’s hard too, standing in the midst of people who agree with you and letting your voice be heard.”
So the president can be heckled, but students can’t disrupt a speech by a person they disagree with. Even if academic institutions are run by a slightly different set of rules, you could really argue that the Irvine 11 had been punished enough. The Muslim Student Union at UC Irvine was suspended, and the students have been punished by the university too.
But today, after various UC professors testified on behalf of the Irvine 11, after the defense brought up the example of Sanah Yassin, who protested a speech by former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud-Olmert in 2009 at the University of Chicago (emails showed that the Irvine 11 modeled the demonstration after this incident) by shouting statements and interrupting Olmert’s speech (no protestor was arrested then), the Irvine 11 was still found guilty.
It’s. Just. Not. Right.
As one of my friends stated in his Facebook status update, “Today, America proved once again to be a hypocrite, as it punished American students to do what it’s [sic] forefathers did for it to … have an existence.” He went on to post a very appropriate quote from the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “Ordinarily, a person leaving a courtroom with a conviction behind him would wear a somber face. But I left with a smile. I knew that I was a convicted criminal, but I was proud of my crime.”
Smile strongly and proudly, Irvine 11.